On July 17, 2008 Michael Maltzan will speak at the National Building Museum as part of the Spotlight on Design lecture series. Maltzan is the founder of Michael Maltzan Architecture located in Los Angeles, California. His work endeavors to synthesize the ambiguity of the contemporary world through architecture that is a catalyst for new experiences and change; it has been recognized with dozens of national and international awards including the AIA’s Young Architect’s Award. NBM Online contributor Andrew Caruso, president and chairman of the board for the American Institute of Architecture Students (AIAS) spoke to Maltzan about the role of technology in architecture, his interest in socially-motivated design, and more

Andrew Caruso: Your design process is founded in exploring ideas three dimensionally. How then does one come to understand the importance of craft and a culture of “making” to your work?

Michael Maltzan: Simultaneity is one of the most compelling issues confronting architectural design and public social space today. As we confront this in design, models create a three-dimensional matrix of ideas held simultaneously in space that you can move around to understand complex interrelationships within the project in same-time. It is for this reason that our ideas are examined and realized in 3D physical and digital models. These processes are parallel ones; however, the more traditional tool of the physical model allows us to look at highly contemporary problems with great fluidity.

The idea of craft is a complicated issue especially in the U.S. For us, modeling, from design to construction mockups, is part of a continuous visualization process where the form of the building—and eventually the details, materials, and technique of producing the building—are an ongoing line of investigation. In that sense, I would not say modeling is directly related to your question of craft, but it does begin to take on issues of contemporary building culture and how the building will be built.

Caruso: Are generational differences revealed in your office through technology?

Maltzan: All generations approach work from various cultural, social, and even technical lenses. For a time, an unhealthy divide existed between those producing work digitally versus those producing work physically. In our office, physical models may have the greatest currency in terms of telling the real story of what we are trying to accomplish. That line, however, is getting blurrier. We find ourselves producing physical models digitally, just as much as we sit with hot glue, scotch tape, and scissors. It is becoming a blend of techniques more focused on moving the ideas and designs forward, and those generational differences you alluded to are giving way to a common conversation about how to approach architecture.

Caruso: You describe your design approach as being a process of discovery and resolution, beginning at the moment of distilled questioning. How much of this process is fundamental, enduring, and consistent, and how much of it is reflective of the unique complexities of each situation?

Maltzan: This is the question that I ask every time we start a project. I am looking for the moment where there begins to be a trajectory, a direction for the design. We try a lot of different things, we make a lot of different things, and we throw out a lot of different things. It is a search for ideas that are strong enough; ideas that will have enough credibility and endurance to survive the long design process. Out of that deep immersion, out of the conviction to make a lot of things and the willingness to throw a lot of them away, inevitably, an idea finally sticks.

To a large extent, beginnings are always extremely fragile and ideas easily defeated. I think design beginnings require a conviction about the end; a belief that following your path will ultimately get you to something strong. It takes a degree of time for any architect to begin to trust their intuition.

Caruso: Do the roots of this, your formal exploration of topography, lie in a larger, ongoing dialogue within your practice relative to our occupation of and relationship with the earth?

Maltzan: I don’t think it comes from our relationship with the earth, at least in a narrower idea about topography or the environment. Historically, the ground plane’s role as the social and public realm has made that space increasingly contested in contemporary culture and society. Both conceptually and formally, you begin to see our buildings have a series of nontraditional relationships to this ground plane provoking new and potentially progressive ideas about how to address public and social space at this moment in our culture. Of course, this is bound to have tentacles into ideas that relate to things like topography, topology, and landscape.

Caruso: Related to these ideas of social and public space, the Inter-City Arts and Skid Row Housing projects seem to indicate a broader social interest in design. What was the impetus for these projects, and how has their execution made a lasting impact on your practice?

Maltzan: I hate the term “socially conscious”; somehow it implies that all of the other work that you’re doing is not. I do think you can describe the work as “socially motivated.” All of our projects are part of a body of work that is trying to investigate a similar set of issues—acknowledging that some conditions, programs, and constituencies are more easily defined as social projects. Yet the approach in any of our projects is no different in its relationship to culture or society as a whole.

Since the beginning of modernism, architecture has had a strong relationship to these types of projects, but the perception of architecture in this realm has been complicated, even troubled at times. If you believe that architecture has a fundamental role in shaping what an urban culture is, then architecture of course has a real and important role to manifest projects which address social issues at the scale of the city. Architecture is one of few disciplines with the capacity and ability to take on these challenges.

Caruso: Research has played a significant role in developing your body of work. From your perspective, what does it mean for design decision making to emerge from a body of knowledge?

Maltzan: Research is a way to try to understand the context of a project at a very deep level; the level at which you begin to understand characteristics that may be less apparent, more subtle, potentially more ambient, but also potentially more resonant in the project over the long-term.

The idea of beginning projects with a deep interest in the pursuit of research is relatively common at this point. Some practices find ways to turn research more directly into form. That’s less of an interest for me. In fact, there is a point early in the design process—after we have buried ourselves in all of the data and analysis—where I find it important to leave the research behind. That’s when we begin to make real progress. That moment is when the real invention in the project begins to emerge.

Caruso: Your practice lists “change” among its goals. What or whom have you perceived to be most altered by the nature of your work? Are there other opportunities of influence which you are currently pursuing?

Maltzan: One of the things becoming clear to me is that much of the political structure and infrastructure that govern projects is incredibly broken. Complex cities like Los Angeles are under extraordinary pressures, especially from increasing density. It is difficult to imagine traditional forms of urban planning or architecture engaging those issues with significant effect, given their complexity—they have to evolve to address this future.

Now, trying to understand how our work has changed in relation… I’d have to think about that a little bit. That’s exactly the question that I’m in the middle of.

Originally published in the July/August 2008
issue of National Building Museum Online